Fact and Fiction: The Mountain Goats' John Darnielle on Wrestling and the Creative Process
The prolific songwriter and now acclaimed author John Darnielle tells PopMatters how he created his wrestling-themed album Beat the Champ, what he calls the Mountain Goats' "most musically interesting record by a country mile".
"Punching Way Above My Weight Class"
That infinite space for play doesn't just come through thematically in the various tales inside and outside the ring that are portrayed on Beat the Champ. Rather, it's in the music that Darnielle really expands his horizons and gives his imagination free rein to go where it wants to on the new album. While no one's surprised that Darnielle tells rich, detailed stories in his lyrics, it's a little less expected how subtle and complicated the arrangements on Beat the Champ are, especially considering the subject matter he's dealing with -- in fact, the musical dimension of the album is something that has generally been overlooked, as Darnielle says that no one has asked him about it in a week's worth of interviews.
But for Darnielle, the music is inextricable from the stories he's trying to tell on Beat the Champ and how he wants to tell them. "One guy who has designed a character who's so total that everyone hates him, he literally has no one who thinks he's popular," Darnielle explains, by way of example. "But he's actually a good guy outside the ring and everyone thinks he's cool. There's something very jazzy and complex. You want to use various musical moods to tell the whole scope of stories, so hopefully there's plenty of that."
Indeed, the music plays a crucial part in reflecting all the different kinds of themes that wrestling opens up to on Beat the Champ. Through the music as much as his lyrics, Darnielle conveys how wrestling is not just about violence and camp, and the visceral reactions they elicit, but it's also about the pregnant pauses that come in the midst of the action, about the ebb and flow of storylines as they build up drama then come down off an adrenaline rush. Just as the stories of wrestling have more going on behind the scenes than you're consciously aware of, so too does the way music sets the scene, as Darnielle explains.
"Four to the floor, stomp-stomp-stomp," Darnielle says, describing what people might expect of wrestling-inspired music. "But the thing is, no, when you think that wrestlers have been using 'Ride of the Valkyries' for their entrance music forever. It was something symphonic and grand, especially once the Wrestlemanias became a thing. Let's get -- what was that piece of music? -- Orff, 'Carmina Burana'. And when they do those -- even though they don't overdo it, so you don't get used to it -- that is better than your arena rock default.
"Except it wasn't a default where I grew up: One of the local villains was a guy named Bad Boy Leroy Brown. Three guesses what his entrance music was...He was an evil villain and he would enter to a really jaunty song by Jim Croce. It would really just start and you would hear the music, here comes the bad guy. And that tells you a little something about music, and how it's not really about the major key or the minor key. It's a little theme."
Along with bassist Peter Hughes and drummer Jon Wurster (also of Superchunk), not to mention guests on strings and woodwinds, Darnielle pushes himself as far as he's gone on what he calls the Mountain Goats' "most musically interesting record by a country mile." It's a progression that has been some time in coming if you've heard his recent albums, especially 2012's Transcendental Youth, which featured horn arrangements from Matthew E. White that, in Darnielle's words, "made us start asking questions about where else we might want to go."
Where they go from there on Beat the Champ is new ground for the Mountain Goats, as they create more carefully crafted songs that include more parts and experimental forays. It's a tone that is set right from the start with "Southwestern Territory", as it matches the thoughts running through a wrestler's head to contemplative touches of woodwinds and piano. In contrast to his typical drafting approach, Darnielle consciously strove to work at a higher level of difficulty on "Southwestern Territory", painstakingly writing four bars at a time and incorporating numerous chord movements.
"It was a much different style of writing than the sort of instinctive way I usually go," Darnielle says. "[Typically] I just follow a song, I know the basics of writing a pop song, I just follow through the changes and sometimes we'll find a curveball in there. The rules are in place and I know most of them.
"Whereas with this, I was punching way above my weight class. And it was really, really a pleasure to do. You look forward to sitting down and writing the song. It took two weeks to write or more -- most songs take me a morning. Most songs, I sit there and write and finish up in a couple hours. Maybe I go in and revise a little bit, but it's not rocket science. But then, a couple of songs on this record are rocket science!"
Darnielle points to "Fire Editorial", with its jazz piano vibe, and the closer "Hair Match" as tracks that took a little more time and deliberation than is the norm for him. Of "Hair Match", in particular, Darnielle says that "doing something that long and that slow was pretty fun, because I don't normally write things that are that slow -- it doesn't take that long to get where they're going. So it took me a lot of discipline not to build up a head of steam and go some place."
The exploratory nature of Beat the Champ might be felt more strongly at the end of "Heel Turn 2" than anywhere else on the album, as Darnielle lingers around and plays out a piano line for a few minutes after the main action of the song has completed. It's something that Darnielle says he's never done on a Mountain Goats song, which usually wrap up soon after the vocals are over. That coda, Darnielle explains, came from a dream about playing major sevens on the piano, after he and the band were getting frustrated in the studio trying to get a complicated rhythm to come together with the other components on the piece. The effect is a quiet, meditative tone that draws out a sense of poignancy, as the protagonist ponders over the ethics of transforming himself from a fan favorite to villain.
"So when I finish tracking it, I just keep playing, that's what you do -- it's piano, why not, I'm kind of in a zone?," he says. "And I just followed my bliss. So it's a three-and-a-half-minute improv and you'll hear the last note of it isn't quite in the scale I was in, so I'm done. And I came in and everyone said we've got to keep this, that was cool. It's funny, it sounds so studied, but it's probably the most spontaneous thing you'll ever hear on one of our albums. It's directly from the heart, it's my response to what we had just done."
"Anything's a Good Theme for Anything"
Part of following his bliss for Darnielle is not getting hung up on arbitrary rules or constraints when it comes to how he expresses himself. This is all the clearer when you consider how Darnielle has crossed over from being a cult-favorite musician to a National Book Award-nominated author in the past half-year. About a mutilated teen who seeks an escape through a mail-in role-playing fantasy game of his own creation, Wolf in White Van received widespread critical acclaim, garnering Darnielle as much -- if not more -- praise and attention from being a novelist as he has from being a musician.
Despite the different kinds of projects he constantly has going on, Darnielle doesn't compartmentalize or box in his imagination by actively deciding what ideas are better for songs and what are better for fiction. "I really don't believe in lines between things like that," Darnielle says. "Anything's a good theme for anything. With these songs, the fact that wrestling relies on character so much is nice. You have some extant character types you can put into play. You don't have to spend so much time building them, you don't have to spend so much time explaining to the listener what you're talking about. So that's nice thematically for this. But I think a song can be about anything, so can a book, so can a dance...The mode of expression is the main point, making contact, whichever you're most comfortable with at the time you're writing, that's what makes it work."
The making of Beat the Champ bears out how proficient Darnielle is at multi-tasking. Created over the course of a few years, Beat the Champ was written while Darnielle was working on other songs, in the process of writing and completing Wolf in White Van, while also on tour some of the time. As Darnielle explains, "I wrote 'Werewolf Gimmick' in a tour van during the writing of the book. But I was on tour, I wasn't getting whole lot book work done, and I had this idea for a song, so I wrote the lyrics in the backseat. Everyone got to the hotel, and I came in and got a guitar. So I wrote them at the same time, they ran concurrently.
"But these aren't the only songs I wrote at that time, they just happened to go together. Because it would be weird to go, here's one album, here's four songs about wrestling, three about Ozzy Osbourne, and so forth. So I happened to write these other songs, most of which are about Ozzy Osbourne."
Even though Darnielle does acknowledge that there are obviously differences between expressing himself through music and through literature, he still feels that there are commonalities between the visceral experiences that both can bring about. Darnielle stresses the physicality of music, and it's something he wants to bring out in his writing too. The idea that there's a reciprocal relationship between music and literature make a lot of sense, in Darnielle's case at least: Just as he has been known for bringing a literary dimension to songwriting, so he wants to bring the element of performance from his music into his prose.
"So what's different about it is that you're not as in your body when you're doing books," Darnielle explains. "I still try to be more in my body...to be physical. A physical thing that lands on your ear through a physical process.
"Literature can be sensuous, but it is not a sensuous world in the way music is. People do -- me, everybody -- you read something that moves you, you start to shake, you experience it with your body. But music, you inherently experience with your body, that's what it is. So this is a big difference for me. To get to where I want to go with art and literature, I have to work a little harder with fiction to get where we're sitting there in our bodies and feeling pure dread or wonder or whatever."
The way he composed Wolf in White Van bears this idea out; Darnielle tells how he read every single word of his manuscript out loud multiple times. Pointing out that literature was originally a "spoken art", Darnielle emphasizes the sounds and rhythms of writing and reading: "Words exist in the air, and they are given weight and rhythm in the way we read them. This is sort of an eccentric position and most people are in the totally opposite place, that words are not supposed to be read out loud and something that happens between the eyes and the page. But to me, it's about the tongue, the air, and the ear. So that's where poetry and literature live for me."
It's apt that Darnielle draws attention to how he tries to make literature a more active artform, because it's something he has been so successful doing as a musician who prizes spontaneity and performance. Whether Darnielle is writing a novel about a character dealing with physical and metaphorical scars or making an album about wrestling and the bigger life lessons it represents -- or even just conversing in an interview -- there's a restless energy that comes through in whatever he does that's uncommonly visceral. And what sets it all in motion for John Darnielle is the spark of habit, the basic routine of always keeping himself busy.
"I don't write a song every day, but I'm working on something at all times. I sort of have this natural, enjoyable process for me -- it's not a burden. It's something I really enjoy. It can be a lot of work, but when you get into it, when you're in the middle of it, there's nothing else like it in the world. It's just so fun."